According to Bill Bryson, the visible universe is a million million million million miles across.
That’s a 1 with 24 zeroes after it (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). That sounds rather large.
But the universe beyond what we can see is even harder to comprehend:
The number of light years to the edge of this larger, unseen universe would be written not “with ten zeroes, not even with a hundred, but with millions.” In short, there’s more space than you can imagine already without going to the trouble of trying to envision some additional beyond.
It hurts your head to think about this kind of thing.
How insignificant am I in relation to this vast universe?
Conan O’Brien once told a story about a conversation he had with comedy legend Albert Brooks that might put this into perspective:
I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.”
You would think this realization would be disheartening but O’Brien admitted, “It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.”
If you go down this mental rabbit hole of trying to put your existence into perspective there are generally two conclusions to draw:
(1) You can become depressed and lose faith.
(2) You can become more self-aware and stop caring so much about what other people think about you.
John C. Reilly is one of the finest character actors of all-time — Boogie Nights, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, Cedar Rapids (his character slays me in this one), The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The River Wild and dozens of other movies.
Reilly never completely carries the movies he’s in but his roles are always unforgettable because he’s got such a memorable look and personality.
In a recent interview with GQ, Reilly admitted his eccentric nature allows him to just be himself and not worry about what other people think:
“At a certain point I realized, you know what, life is short,” John said. “I’ve played all these crazy characters. People see me do these absurd things. They already know that I’m an eccentric person. I am an eccentric person. So fuck it! If I want to dress like a cowboy from the 1890s, that’s what I’m going to fucking do. And it’s going to be okay for everybody because that’s what’s going to make me happy.”
I love this attitude. It’s something that has gained more appeal as I age.
We all probably worry too much about stuff we shouldn’t care about. I suppose that’s part of what makes us human.
My general theory about life is that “things usually work out.”
Not always of course. Bad stuff still happens all the time.
But constantly worrying about things that are completely out of your control seems like a waste of time.
Bill Miller had a great take on this in a quarterly letter to his investors:
When I am asked what I worry about in the market, the answer usually is “nothing”, because everyone else in the market seems to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying, and so all of the relevant worries seem to be covered. My worries won’t have any impact except to detract from something much more useful, which is trying to make good long-term investment decisions.
It’s human nature to worry.
Sometimes you just can’t help it. I’m the same way.
I’m not a huge fan of people who offer life advice that makes it sound easy. None of this is easy. Maybe this is a pep talk to myself as much as anything.
We’re all the center of our own universe so getting out of your own head is impossible.
But there is something freeing about doing your best, being yourself and letting the chips fall where they may.
Making it Look Easy is Hard Work